COVID-19 SPECIAL

Tech push in India to help jobless millions find work

Rising unemployment in India has prompted states and entrepreneurs to create search portals, but protectionists are calling for jobs to be reserved for locals.

Labourers work at a construction site on the outskirts of Amritsar, India, on Sept 5, 2020.
Labourers work at a construction site on the outskirts of Amritsar, India, on Sept 5, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

For Mr Abhijeet Kumar, Covid-19 could not have come at a worse time. As soon as the Indian government imposed a lockdown to battle the coronavirus in March, he lost his customer service job in a mall in Patna, the capital of Bihar.

With an unwell mother back home in the small town of Gopalganj, a father laid off from a construction company in Dubai, and a school-going brother, the weight of financial pressures sat heavily on the 19-year-old's shoulders.

In the economic crash that came with the lockdowns, over 41 million Indians like Mr Kumar lost their jobs. Migrant workers kicked out of offices and malls in big cities walked back miles to their villages across the country. In the first week of May, India's overall unemployment rate rose as high as 27.11 per cent.

A crop of new websites and apps are now trying to help the newly jobless millions. Some are by state governments, others by entrepreneurs who are tweaking technological solutions they were already building for blue-collar workers.

Mr Kumar signed up to one called Jobsgaar, a website in English and Hindi that connects job seekers to local traders and small and medium-sized enterprises in Tier 2 and 3 towns. One listing from a motorcycle agency 6km from Mr Kumar's home caught his eye: "Wanted salesman with minimum 6 mons (sic) experience. Salary Rs. 12,000." That amount is about $223.

He promptly applied. After a face-to-face interview in which he revealed additional photo-editing skills, he was hired.

"I ride to work in 20 minutes. I stay with family. I even take a lunch box to work. I earn the same salary I did earlier but I save more. I also have time to restart the science degree I gave up," said Mr Kumar.

This is exactly what Jobsgaar founder Atul Pratap Singh had envisioned. Hailing from a small town in Uttar Pradesh himself, he found chemists and small factory owners looking for workers, while young job seekers migrated to metropolitan cities in search of a livelihood.

"The prime issue for 450 million Indians in the semi-formal workforce is not lack of skill but the void between opportunity and workforce," said Mr Singh.

India faced an unemployment crisis even before the pandemic, hitting 6.1 per cent in 2017-2018, the highest in 45 years. The Covid-19 lockdowns have exacerbated this, triggering a reverse migration of the workforce to villages.

Jobsgaar launched its portal in July, at the height of the crisis, focusing on jobs in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Assam - states that a majority of blue-collar migrants are from and have now returned to.

 
 
 

Mr Singh recalled the first job listing was for a tyre puncture assistant in Kanpur for a pay of 8,000 rupees.

In 55 days, 10,000 applicants and more than 300 businesses signed up on Jobsgaar. More than 90 per cent are from small towns.

"We'll be launching a new feature soon where people can create a visual resume, like a TikTok video, in which they introduce themselves and their skills," said Mr Singh.

Another app, Apna (Ours), which calls itself "the LinkedIn for blue-and grey-collar workers", has listings, but also virtual communities for each of its 60 job types, such as drivers, nurses and plumbers.

"Social and work lives are very strongly linked in this job market. We try to replicate these trust networks virtually," said Mr Nirmit Parikh, founder of the Apna app. Job seekers chat with one another about opportunities, offer help and warn about cheating employers.

Advertising agency Lowe Lintas launched an app called Kaam Wapasi (Return to Work) with jobs from Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore in construction, delivery, restaurants and factory shop floors.

Mr Virat Tandon, MullenLowe Lintas' group chief executive, called Kaam Wapasi "a collaboration of like-minded corporates". Telecommunications company Airtel pushes text messages about jobs, Zee Network carries free ads on its Hindi channels, Axis Bank offers online payment services, and Razorpod wrote the app's code for no charge.

"Big companies hiring may not have many vacancies, but are offering better pay (than they were earlier), permanent contracts, accommodation and better benefits now to attract experienced migrant workers," said Mr Tandon.

All the tech solutions currently do not charge fees. Said Mr Singh: "We have a revenue model that we'll get to, but only after the crisis is over."

Governments are stepping up, too. In Haryana, a state call centre is contacting about 100,000 unemployed people who registered with the state employment department to match them with job vacancies.

The Delhi government launched its own jobs website on July 27. Today, it has 1.1 million job seekers and more than 810,000 active vacancies in 32 categories.

 
 

"Built for the target segment, it's a no-frills website in Hindi and English that works well on a mobile browser. You just fill a short form and in a couple of minutes, start searching for jobs," said Mr Jasmine Shah, vice-chairman of the Delhi government's policy think-tank.

But the success rate of applicants is difficult to measure, said Mr Shah. On a central government app launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, more than 6.9 million people registered in 40 days, but only 691 took the jobs offered.

Mr Kumar said young workers like him are more vigilant today.

"In the lockdown, we saw employers abandon us. We need income, but we won't sell ourselves cheap any more."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 06, 2020, with the headline 'Tech push in India to help jobless millions find work'. Subscribe